The Rejection Ballet

Last week on the blog we discussed rejection (as we so often do) and reader Daniel Friedman made an interesting comment, which I am reprinting here because I thought it was an unusually matter-of-fact perspective from a writer.

Guest Blogger: Daniel Friedman

Here is what I have learned during my submission journey, and in my related research:

When we’re submitting, we should understand that agents’ form rejection language is a diplomatic way to say no, especially if the response is to an initial query rather than a requested full manuscript. We should try to appreciate the elegance and subtlety of the form rejection, but don’t read too much into it.

The agent’s objective is to make us go away. The language will usually be polite enough that, if the author’s lousy manuscript goes on to become the next lousy bestseller, the author won’t be going on “Today” and shouting “In yo’ face, Lazy Agent!”

Thus the language will posit the possibility that some other hypothetical agent might agree to represent the work. The language will be the same whether the query is good, mediocre, or incomprehensible and insane, because the same letter goes out to everyone.

At the same time, the language will generally not be too encouraging, because, if it is, authors will misread it and later claim that the agent liked or recommended the manuscript in subsequent queries to other agents.

Above all, the language will be carefully crafted to discourage the author from replying to the rejection e-mail, calling the agent’s office, or showing up in person.

However, despite the painstaking craft agents put into their form rejections, we authors continue to do all these things. Thus, the ballet continues.


Sounds pretty straightforward – except of course my objective is NOT to make you go away. (Please don’t.) But otherwise, what do you think of this assessment?

Dan’s work is repped by Victoria Skurnick of Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. Visit his blog “Something Persuasive.”

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  5. Claire M. Caterer on July 10, 2010 at 9:24 AM

    >I for one appreciate the form rejection. It's quick and easy, and that means I'll get a response–which is what I want. My writing has been both rejected and accepted many times, and when I've got work out there, I just want a yes or a no.

    I've recently received 2 rejections that said, "Not this one, but you write well, so consider me for the future." Still written as a form rejection, but I take hope from it. My experience is that no one extends the gift of hope lightly, because every agent knows that writers cling to it.

    Rejection is part of the business, folks. For everyone.

  6. Susan Bourgeois on July 9, 2010 at 6:52 PM

    >I think Dan is correct in all that he stated.

    Rachelle, you've been extremely helpful to writers who follow your blog and I, like many, appreciate all of your great tips. I was telling my husband in the car today how generous you have been in sharing your knowledge with us on a daily basis.

    I know agents are busy. I understand that fully but I think it would be wonderful to occasionally receive some type of short feedback that is not in the form of a standard rejection letter.

    Here's an example.

    Hi Susan,

    I read your query. Overall it was well written but I feel your opening hook sucks. You need to work on this area before you continue to send your query to additional agents.

    I hope you appreciate this small feedback and please don't bug me.

    Good Luck!

  7. Missives From Suburbia on July 9, 2010 at 10:21 AM

    >I think Steve Laube raised an interesting point I'd like to see addressed in a future post: What writing conferences are the most beneficial to writers who want to learn about the query process, either by learning to write better queries or getting face-to-face feedback from agents who have read their pages?

  8. Sharon A. Lavy on July 9, 2010 at 7:26 AM

    >Giggle. It's a light touch on a sensitive subject.

    But it makes writers look immature. Are we?????

  9. Lynnette Kraft on July 8, 2010 at 9:34 PM

    >I feel exactly the way Daniel does, only I would haven't have been able to say it so nicely, because I find it extremely frustrating. While I understand that agents and publishers have an abundance of queries and submissions, I wonder how many good or even great authors are being rejected merely because they don't have that connection through a common friend or acquaintance. Seem unfair – but what's to be done?

    I wonder… has it always been so difficult to get through to an agent/publisher? I think the world of "online" has exhausted people. Agents and publishers likely get far more query letters than ever because people can just digitally throw them out there. Agents probably have a hard time taking any of them seriously because so many of the proposals aren't written by serious writers.

    I've spent the past two years building a blog with a large reader base (because the man who wrote 1,001 Ways to Market Your Book told me too), but even with over 2200 registered blog readers, and one published book behind me – I still can't get anybody to take a look. See what I mean? Frustrating.

    So cheers to Daniel Friedman who said what we've all been thinking – but with charm, wit, and okay, maybe a little bit of sarcasm – but that part felt somewhat satisfying to me. You see, I just bit the bullet and paid $100 to send my proposal through Christian Manuscript Submission thinking that maybe, just maybe, the agents and publishers will take a look there (since they all say they will), and then I read a blog post that you wrote that said not to waste your money. So… not such a good day for this writer.

    What's a writer to do? Hmmmm….

    Thanks for featuring Daniel's comment. I like that guy!

    Lynnette Kraft
    Dancing Barefoot on Weathered Ground

  10. St. Catharines, Ontario on July 8, 2010 at 9:17 PM

    >Government Funding / Research Scandal

    Visit the website that the Canadian House of Commons and numerous Universities across North America have as well.
    It's an ingenious form of white collar crime:

    PHD credentials / contacts, an expendable family, participation of a dubious core of established professionals, Unaudited Government agency funding ), identity protected by Privacy Commissioner Office of Canada, (Jennifer Stoddart), unlimited funding (under the guise of research grants), PHD individuals linked with the patient (deter liability issues), patient diagnosed with mental illness (hospital committed events = no legal lawyer access/rights), cooperation of local University and police (resources and security); note the Director of Brock Campus Security.

    This all adds up to a personal ATM; at the expense of Canadian Taxpayers!
    "convinced" to be taken to St. Catharines General hospital (2001) and conveniently diagnosed with a "mental illness" (hint: Hallucination type; "forced" to consume "prescribed"
    corresponding medication for "cognitive" purposes )
    **The Psych convinces the patients fragmented family, 70 yr old mother, 10 yr old nephew and his divorced sister (who rented across the incredibly beautiful home of Marianne Edwards ( ex-Brock instructor ) and her husband (lawyer)), to move in together. They comply and obey to the "Doctor's" credentials, contacts, and financial gifts.
    "Where" and "How" have the participants been receiving their (lavish?) incomes from the past 8 years? Government Agencies like Click here: (annual
    grants up to 500 k ) ?
    The link above takes you directly to one of their research teams. Lisa Root, ironically, met with me during the 2001 incident as a C.A.M.H. employee, who I was "encouraged" to meet.

    Medicine Gone Bad


  11. CFD Trade on July 8, 2010 at 8:36 PM

    >But sometimes a "no" is a "no" and it should already be taken personally.

  12. Anonymous on July 8, 2010 at 3:16 PM

    >Sorry, I meant his "In Yo face, lazy agent" line was hilarious, not the part about rejection. Also: Still, despite writers' reps for being overly sensitive/emotional or even irrational, many of us ARE business-like, professional and yes, matter-of-fact in our dealings with agents and editors.
    (Need to edit my comments next time)

  13. Anonymous on July 8, 2010 at 3:01 PM

    >HIlarious–loved it the first time. I do think agents, like writers, get boxed in by trends and often take the safe, easy sale over the quirky but cool and original ideas. As I said, they seem to stay within their comfort zone and circle of editors.

    Still, despite writers' reps for being overly sensitive/emotional or even irrational, many of us our business-like, professional and yes, matter-of-fact in our dealings with agents and editors. Over time, we've learned to develop a thick skin and an objective eye. All we crave is a little feedback and postive reinforcement, but we do understand it's too much to ask of busy agents. The few remarks I've gotten have been like gold and I'll be sure to query those courteous and kind agents again.

  14. MJR on July 8, 2010 at 12:13 PM

    >I used to work in publishing and I'd say this is a very acccurate description of rejection letters. Even personalized rejection letters are more or less like this, unless the agent says he/she would like to see future projects.

  15. Walt M on July 8, 2010 at 11:40 AM

    >I'm also in the camp of preferring a "form rejection" to no response at all. However, I think if the agent specifies that no response will be sent, then you accept that and get over it after the specified time period.

  16. Timothy Fish on July 8, 2010 at 11:26 AM

    >"I do not like your main character. In fact you made me want to cheer for his failure."

    I’ve read books like that—not to name names because some of them read this blog. The bank is repossessing your car? Cool! It couldn’t have happened to a better person. You’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness? Take that sucker!

    Sometimes we need someone to be honest and say, “Your protagonist is a complete jerk.” Is there a form letter for that? I think that’s one of the hardest things for an author to see because we always see the protagonist as the protagonist sees himself and don’t realize we haven’t introduced him properly.

  17. Lyla on July 8, 2010 at 11:15 AM

    >Sounds pretty accurate to me! (But I'm not saying that in a bitter way. It's just life 🙂 )

  18. Steve on July 8, 2010 at 10:57 AM

    >Excellent post. As an agent I have to admit he is pretty close to being accurate. We use about seven "levels" of rejection letters…everything from "Dear Author" to "Send me the rest!" Occasionally I take the extra time to add a sentence or two of critique but that is about all time will allow.

    June G. above mentioned the advantage of the writers conference. Very true. Especially at a conference like Mt. Hermon where sample chapters are submitted ahead of the conference and we faculty come in a day early to plow through them. Last week Jim Rubart, author of ROOMS (B&H 2010), had the delight of whipping out my critique of his manuscript at a conference long ago…for the book that was released this year. I actually wrote something along the lines of "I do not like your main character. In fact you made me want to cheer for his failure." Ouch! And yet Jim said that the critique helped him change the opening chapters to make the protagonist more sympathetic and likeable.

    But I still get the honor of "rejecting" yet another successful author. 🙂

    The Steve Laube Agency

  19. Brendan O'Meara on July 8, 2010 at 10:55 AM

    >Just like Amy Sue Nathan said above, give me a form rejection over nothing. This way the writer knows and is not hung out to dry waiting, waiting, waiting.

    Bring on the Form. Let's capitalize it. Form. Boom!

  20. virtualDavis on July 8, 2010 at 10:48 AM

    >Rejection Ballet. Tidy, compelling image. Though I wonder if it might be necessary to introduce a Clydesdale genre more akin to Stomp or Riverdance for those of us over 200 pounds. I'm fairly certain ballet has never been (nor ever will be) employed to describe my actions, physical or literary. The Rejection Stomp. Hmmm… Might work.

    All to say, Daniel, I like your notion of writer and agent/publisher dancing. There's an interesting tension in ballet that holds it all together, no matter how free, fanciful and gravity-defying the impression. In ballet, rejection can even serve as inspiration and motivation. Bring on the rejection!

  21. Timothy Fish on July 8, 2010 at 10:05 AM

    >Lydia Sharp has a point, but the individual author submits far too few manuscripts to have enough data points to make the information meaningful. For all we know, the reject might be an anomaly caused by the agent having an argument with her husband. Only if we could collect data from other authors showing which stories were rejected and which made it through could we have any hope of finding the trend.

  22. kathy taylor on July 8, 2010 at 9:47 AM

    >Rejections don't bother me. Other things do. It's reading that we'll get an automated reply and we don't so we query again as instructions say: no automated reply again; no rejection. Did the agent get it? When no feedback from comes after submitting a sample query as part of a webinar, some writers would like to know if the rules have changed.

  23. Lydia Sharp on July 8, 2010 at 9:47 AM

    >Despite the lack of personalization, form rejections are still a type of valuable feedback. Whatever you had sent to whoever, it didn't work for them. Don't underestimate how well you can use that information in the future.

  24. error7zero on July 8, 2010 at 9:46 AM

    >We all receive these. They are simply "not interested."
    I suspect agents open boatloads of queries, not miserable affairs, but boring or derivative. I also suspect most agents are far more specific in their interests than agentquery or their own site let on. I've yet to see an agent saying, "Who's got the next great math book?"

  25. Beth on July 8, 2010 at 9:18 AM

    >Most writers are so hungry for an acceptance that they miss the nuances of the rejection letter. What you said is exactly so. The agent has to reject in a neutral fashion that indicates simply they are not interested in the manuscript at the present time. Period. What you do beyond that is your own business.

  26. Jess of All Trades on July 8, 2010 at 8:30 AM

    >Elegantly said. This is another way that querying is like dating. A polite, firm, "I'm not interested," is sometimes the only way to make a perfectly nice, hopeful, just-not-for-you person go away and move on.

  27. Teenage Bride on July 8, 2010 at 8:24 AM

    >What a perfect analysis.

  28. Jessica Nelson on July 8, 2010 at 7:59 AM

    >LOL I love this post!!!

  29. Jason on July 8, 2010 at 7:55 AM

    >I remember reading the comment, and first of all I think he did a great job of giving his assessment without sounding bitter about it.

    But I agree with him…for the most part agents want to do two things in a form rejection letter…

    1. Make you understand without any hint of doubt that they are not interested in the project or in any further correspondence about the project.

    2. Cover themselves in case your novel becomes hugely successful.

    I don't blame agents for having those objectives, I'd probably do the same.

  30. B.K. Jackson on July 8, 2010 at 7:38 AM

    >I haven't yet reached the point of submission, so I can't honestly say how I'll cope when I get a rejection. I do know that since I began to write I began to prepare myself for the fact that not everyone is going to like what I write, for whatever reason. It's just life.

    And I am certain that the vast majority of people in the business are courteous in their interactions, form letter or no.

    And the bottom line for me is, whether an agent/editor likes it or not, it's not like my desire to write what I write is going to be changed based on their approval, so it seems pointless to dwell on rejections or get upset by them.

    But ask me again when I get my first one. LOL!

  31. katelovesbooks on July 8, 2010 at 7:32 AM

    >I really like this post. I knew when I was getting my writing chops in shape when a form rejection wasn't so painful and I knew it was just a polite "No, thank you."

    It's all about research, I think. I was on a writing message board and so many times people posted their form rejections asking if they should send a thank you or ask for further information. And then I imagine people who are really trying to query solo without even an on-line community and who haven't scouted agent blogs.

    It makes me feel bad for agents–even the ones that reject me. 🙂

  32. katelovesbooks on July 8, 2010 at 7:32 AM

    >I really like this post. I knew when I was getting my writing chops in shape when a form rejection wasn't so painful and I knew it was just a polite "No, thank you."

    It's all about research, I think. I was on a writing message board and so many times people posted their form rejections asking if they should send a thank you or ask for further information. And then I imagine people who are really trying to query solo without even an on-line community and who haven't scouted agent blogs.

    It makes me feel bad for agents–even the ones that reject me. 🙂

  33. Timothy Fish on July 8, 2010 at 7:24 AM

    >Daniel is right. I especially like his statement, “The agent’s objective is to make us go away.” But while we know that from an intellectual perspective, it’s the emotional perspective that’s hard to deal with. It’s like the guy whose girlfriend just dumped him. She explains all the thing she can’t stand about him and intellectually he knows that she just wants him to go away, but at the same time he’s thinking “If she’d take the time to get to know me, she’s see that I’m sensitive,” or whatever. Author reactions to rejection letters are more often based on how they are dealing with the emotional side rather than what they know intellectually.

    No, is no, but when an author has invested so much time and has built up so much emotional baggage, believing that this manuscript is their greatest work yet, no is also a huge punch in the gut. Maybe we need a different attitude about rejection, but more importantly we need a different attitude about our manuscripts. Let’s face it, if we put our manuscript or our book out there with the expectation that everyone will love it, we’re thinking too highly of ourselves. No book has ever been written that was liked by everyone. All of the really good books have been hated. And let’s face it, most of us aren’t writing really good book; we’re writing run of the mill stuff like lonely Dan meets lonely Kim solves a mystery and gets married.

  34. A. Grey on July 8, 2010 at 7:19 AM

    >Great article! I don't mind form rejections at all. In fact, I much prefer a simple 'no thanks, but thanks for the thought', or 'not for me, but keep at it' sort of response than a 'very interesting idea but no' or 'great take on things, very intriguing, but not for me'.

    I don't mind if an agent isn't interested, for any reason. But it irks me to no end when I get something not-quite-form that says my idea/story is exciting and new, but failed to nab their attention. The rejection tells me I failed, and frankly I don't want to hear that an agent was intrigued but not intrigued enough. That's salt in my wound. I'd rather simply hear 'no'. I hate that pesky 'but' thrown in after a praising remark.

    Now, actual feedback? Bring it on! I know it's rare, but if an agent happens to give me ANY feedback, for good or bad, I slaver over it and use it greedily to try and improve myself and my writing.

  35. Amy Sue Nathan on July 8, 2010 at 6:35 AM

    >I don't mind form rejections — I appreciate them even if they mean nothing but "no thanks."

    I much prefer them to no response at all.

  36. Jan Morrison on July 8, 2010 at 6:23 AM

    >Yesterday I would've been loving this and saying that I love to get my rejections because the faster I get them the closer to being accepted I am but today. Today I'm right some owly. Why? I got a form rejection and it is cold. I know why it is cold and I so appreciate the sanity of what you are saying in this post, Daniel. Yet…I'm frost bitten and it's warm here in Nova Scotia. So, I'm going to go eat a whack of strawberries and then I'll get back on my horse and ride. Because that's what we cowgirl writers do. Adios.

  37. WRITER'S LOUNGE on July 8, 2010 at 6:18 AM

    >I've certainly been down this road. Though I never let it get me down — for long, it still hurts. Usually by the time I wake next morning the pain is gone and I back to smiling best I can until the next one.

    I am beginning to sell life insurance for a local firm and my new boss was talking about the difficulty some agents have with rejection. I told him: 'That's no problem. Like water off a duck's back. Hell, I'm a writer.'

    The agents have a job to do and I'm sure the do the best they can. We do also, so we keep submitting and submitting.

  38. HMGardner on July 8, 2010 at 5:53 AM

    >I don't mind the rejection emails in the slightest. The ones that I have received have all been very generic and kind. It's the ones that I didn't get that irk me a bit. At least with the rejection comes the knowledge that you are finished with that agent/publisher for that job. The ones who choose not to send anything, whatever their reasons, leave the would-be-author with a feeling of unfinished business.

  39. Em-Musing on July 8, 2010 at 4:12 AM

    >Interesting way of putting it. Because I've done "on-camera" and had to audition for almost all of my jobs, I learned rejection is part of the profession. Imagine standing in front of several different directors, several times a week performing your little heart out and you only get chosen 20% of the time even though your performance was 100%. Query letter writing is a craft. Even when it's 100% perfect, it's still a long shot whether the story you're submitting will resonate with an agent.

  40. Tessa Quin on July 8, 2010 at 3:07 AM

    >I queried a lot of agents yesterday and already got a few rejections (got to love how fast some of them reply!). They were all carefully written form rejections.

    Since I'm a sensitive person (like most writers) I thought I'd go and cry each time, but I honestly didn't feel any rejection from those rejections. Granted, I had decided before querying that I would view it as a part of the process of getting published, but still, I never thought I'd handle it this well (so proud of myself). I was expecting a lot of negative rejections, so I think that the form rejections are nice.

  41. Francine on July 8, 2010 at 1:58 AM


    Exactly, a form rejection is just that: impersonal!

    It's best to adopt a philosophical outlook to subbing ms – it will or it won't incite interest and, if it doesn't get over it! After all, 2,804 followers on one lit agent web blog kind of hints that chances of pick-up are slim indeed!

  42. arlee bird on July 8, 2010 at 1:54 AM

    >Makes sense to me.

    What Would You Do?

  43. June G on July 8, 2010 at 1:33 AM

    >If writers could only grasp the enormity of queries that agents receive, and how subjective the process is, they'd know to just keep sending their material out until they find someone it resonates with.

    Going to writer conferences in which agents critique queries and first pages has proven immeasurably helpful. I've gained a greater understanding of what they're looking for and I continue to hone the craft of writing. This year a couple of agents actually requested to see more of my work. That wouldn't have happened if I hadn't committed to learning and practicing.

    Don't put much energy into rejections. Remember, they're rejections. Someone has said "no". Commit to locating the person who is going to say "yes."

  44. T. Anne on July 8, 2010 at 1:09 AM

    >I read this in original comment form last week and thought it was brilliant, still do. Well said and crafted Dan!

    I agree, appreciate the form rejection for what it is and try not to read too much into it. I wouldn't bother printing it out for posterity, but that's just me.